Designers need to participate in the development of AI or face having the future world designed without them, warns Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky in this exclusive interview.
Speaking to Dezeen at the River Cafe in London, Chesky, who graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), warned that history may be repeating itself as designers fail to embrace the potential of artificial intelligence (AI).
Designers “came to digital very late” he recalled, predicting that if they are also late to embrace the changing world of AI “the world will be designed without them”.
“Designers gave away a lot of their power”
“My recollection in the 1990s is that a lot of the most prestigious design jobs weren’t in the internet, they weren’t web designers, they were print – people came to digital design very late,” Chesky told Dezeen.
“A consequence of the best designers not going to the internet or into web design till very late was that people designed a world without them,” he continued.
“I think designers gave away a lot of their power during the development of the internet by not participating.”
Chesky warned that if designers do not adapt to and adopt AI, then they will end up being “subordinate” to engineers, mirroring what happened on the internet where the majority of websites are created by “product managers” not designers.
“It’s gonna happen,” he said. “So either you can be part of the change, or the world can be designed without you and then you have to fit into that change. And you’re going to be a subordinate.”
AI is “unstoppable”
Online rental website Airbnb was founded by Chesky with Nathan Blecharczyk and Joe Gebbia in 2007. Since then it has grown to become the world’s largest short-term rental website, with 1.5 billion stays booked through the site. Currently there are seven million listings on the site in almost every country in the world.
Chesky believes that AI is set to have an impact on everyone and that companies need to consider what that impact will be.
“My lesson to everyone with AI is it might have a negative near-term effect on your business,” he said. “It might not, I don’t know. But unless you think it’s going to get uninvented, if you think there’s gonna be more AI in the future than now, then the genie is out of the bottle.”
“I’m not here to say it’s a good thing – I think it’s on balance good, but my opinion about whether it’s going to be good or bad, kind of irrelevant, because it’s unstoppable.”
“My general advice is to participate in it”
He believes that the inevitability of AI’s impact means that design graduates should embrace the emerging technology.
“I think AI can either displace a lot of creatives or it can empower a lot of creatives,” he said.
“As a RISD graduate running a tech company, I would implore creative people, journalists, writers, people that identify as technologists, RISD graduates, Royal College of Art graduates… if you think AI’s here to stay and you think it’s going to be more important – and how could you say none of that’s true – then my general advice is to participate in it.”
As well as benefiting those people’s careers, Chesky argues that designers and creatives becoming more involved with AI could lessen the negative potential impacts of the technology.
“By having large numbers of designers and creatives involved in the development of AI, and AI-centred products, the potential negative impacts of the technology could be reduced,” he said.
“The best chance is for the most creative people, the humanistic people [to be] in charge, participate in what appears to be an inevitable revolution,” he said.
“And that will probably also limit the downside of that revolution. Do we really want only some types of people participating in the future and design the future? Or do you want all these people, especially the creative community to participate?”
“Wary of fetishization of technology”
Chesky explained that Airbnb was slowly adopting AI as he believes that it can be used as a tool to rethink what the company is doing. However, he doesn’t want the company to jump on the AI bandwagon, and will only be adopting the technology where it can be useful to its customers.
“I think one of the best ways to keep your balance in the technology world is to keep moving, to be on the leading edge, and we will be with AI,” he said.
“But, I am also wary of fetishization of technology, so we have not done a lot and not rushed to ship out things just to be on the bandwagon. I only want to adopt technology that is useful and helpful to people.”
Following its rapid growth, Airbnb is currently in its “second-album problem” phase, said Chesky. He explained that the company is aiming to launch a second product in the near future with the aim of replicating the success of multi-time entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.
“The sheer number of entrepreneurs that have one idea, they do one thing, it’s incredibly successful, but they struggle to do a second thing, is numerous,” he said.
“Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos – there’s a reason they’re so famous. Steve Jobs six, seven times; Jeff Bezos, with Amazon retail prime and AWS, Elon with his multitude of companies,” he continued. “I’m part of that next generation on.”
“There’s one more phase for Airbnb”
Chesky explained that he will dedicate his future time at Airbnb to reinventing the company with the launch of a new product or idea that will rival the original home-letting idea.
“There’s one more phase for Airbnb, it’s probably what I spend the rest of my time at Airbnb doing, which is reinventing ourselves like all the great companies have done.”
However, before this can happen, Airbnb needs to improve its core offering, explained Chesky. It has been trying to manage expectations amid a wave of new users on the platform following the pandemic.
“I want people to be in love with the Airbnb service so as to want new things from us,” he said. “And there is a lot of love for Airbnb, but if I’m being critical, there have been a lot of complaints, especially when we got really popular because of the pandemic.”
“A lot of new people tried us and those people have expectations,” he continued. “They want the uniqueness of Airbnb and the reliability of hotel and that’s hard to do in 100,000 cities.”
Airbnb to launch product that is “going to surprise you”
The company has been working on “perfecting” its service to build the basis for a new launch.
We’ve been really focused this last year on really perfecting our service,” he said. “Hopefully we will kind of turn the corner and people will say ‘wow, they really improved their service, it’s really great’. Is it perfect? No, probably never be perfect, but it’s really better than other platforms.”
Chesky was coy about the upcoming product release, but hinted that it would be a service based on people meeting and going to events together.
The product is set to be launched at an event that’s “going to surprise you” in a manner similar to Apple’s much-anticipated, past product launches.
“I’m very interested in business ideas that go beyond booking your house on a short-term basis. And I think about like how with our assets we have today, we have this system of trust, we have identities, we have profiles, you’ve verified more than 100 million profiles, we have a two-sided reputation system,” he said.
“We knew about you, we learned about what you wanted in life and we get to kind of potentially match you to people and places experiences all over the world – that’s kind of the conceptual space that we’re playing.”
The photo is courtesy of Airbnb.
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